Updated: Jan 8
The lever, wedge, pulley, screw, wheel and axle, and the inclined plane are all tools that we see every day. The wheel and axle keeps cars on the road moving to their desired destination. The inclined plane bridges the gap between one floor and another when going up a set of stairs. And the screw keeps things together and in one piece.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the purpose of simple machines is to “modify motion and force in order to perform work. When teaching students how they work and how to use them it is good to give students both a visual and a hands-on understanding of the ways that they are used. Here are five at-home projects that students and their parents can engineer that will show them how simple machines work and how to use them effectively.
Exerting force on an object in order to move it from one place to another is the primary function of a simple machine. A catapult uses a lever to launch items far away by storing the potential energy of the item and then releasing it, increasing its force. An easy project for kids who want to learn about levers could be found on the Sylvan Source website. Using craft sticks, rubber bands, bottle caps and a hot glue gun (with adult supervision, of course) parents and their students can craft a simple catapult, providing the student with a hand-on learning experience on how they work to exert force.
Wheel and Axle
The wheel is said to be one of the most revolutionary devices to ever be discovered by man. Once that wheel is attached to an axle and another wheel, this simple machine can carry the weight of a load from one place to another. The axle will keep the two wheels working in tandem while the wheels are rolling to enable movement of the load from one place to another.
A good way to demonstrate this to a young learning is to build Clothespin Button Racers, as suggested by the blog Almost Unschooled. Using clothes pins, buttons, a drinking straw, bread ties, colored tape and glue (which is optional) parents and students can build miniature cars that feature a wheel and axle. This project will demonstrate how a wheel and axle work together to exert force in one direction or another.
While you’re building the Clothespin Button Racers, it may be a good idea to also build a track that will give them something to ride across. Any simple ruler or straight cardboard box flap would function well as a ramp. But, as parents and students will quickly discover, unless the flap object is lifted or lowered at an incline in some way, the cars will not move. Inclining the flat item for use as a track will show how inclined planes work and give them a practical understanding of how force pushes the item downward with more force being required in order to move them upward.
A pulley is a simple as attaching a load to one end of a cable or rope and hanging that cable or rope over a wheel and axle. Using a counter weight (either a person or an actual weight that can be modified to be heavier or lighter given the needs of the user) the load can be lifted or lowered in order to transport items from one location to another.
On the blog Hands On As We Grow, there is a great article in which the author ties a pulley up for her children in order to demonstrate how it works and the many ways in which a pulley is useful.
In short, there are many ways in which a parent can teach their child about simple machines. The child will likely already be familiar with several before being formally taught what they do and how they do it. But engineering their own versions of simple machines will be the best way to get a child to connect with simple machines. It’s also a great way to get them excited about Engineering which can only be a good thing for their future.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Simple Machine.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 Jan. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/technology/simple-machine.
“Critical Thinking with a Catapult.” Sylvan Learning Blog, 14 May 2015, http://www.sylvanlearning.com/blog/index.php/critical-thinking-with-a-catapult/?utm_source=Coffee Cups and Crayons&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Coffee Cups and Crayons
Mom, An Almost Unschooling. “Clothespin Button Racer.” Clothespin Button Racer, 1 Jan. 1970, http://almostunschoolers.blogspot.com/2010/12/clothespin-button-racer.html.
Durham, Janelle, et al. “Simple Machines for Kids: The Pulley.” Hands On As We Grow®, 29 Jan. 2017, https://handsonaswegrow.com/simple-machines-for-kids-the-pulley/.
Gorden, Beth. “30 Simple Machine Projects for Kids.” 123 Homeschool 4 Me, 15 July 2019, https://www.123homeschool4me.com/24-simple-machine-projects-for-kids_97.